A national bird flu “prevention zone” has been declared by the UK government as the country continues to grapple with the worst outbreak of the disease ever recorded.
At least three million birds have already been culled by farmers and landowners due to the spread of the disease, which has also taken a heavy toll on populations of endangered wild birds.
The government said new Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) rules will come into force from midday on Monday requiring all bird keepers in Great Britain to follow “strict biosecurity measures help protect their flocks from the threat of avian flu”.
“Implementing the highest levels of biosecurity measures on farms is the most effective way to reduce the risk of disease spreading within flocks,” the government said.
The introduction of the AIPZ comes after 190 cases of bird flu have been confirmed across the UK since late October 2021, with over 30 of these confirmed since the beginning of the month.
The East of England has been particularly badly hit with outbreaks in poultry and captive birds.
There have also been outbreaks in the southwest and in wild birds at multiple sites across the country.
In a statement, the government said: “Avian influenza circulates naturally in wild birds and when they migrate to the United Kingdom from mainland Europe over the winter they can spread the disease to poultry and other captive birds. Maintaining strict biosecurity is the most effective method of protecting birds from the virus.”
However, the outbreak of the disease, which has also heavily impacted globally important populations of seabirds around the UK’s coastline, has been linked back to east Asian poultry farms.
As well as the millions of captive birds culled, “hundreds of thousands” of wild birds are known to have died.
In a joint statement the chief veterinary officers for England, Scotland and Wales said: “Bird keepers have faced the largest ever outbreak of avian flu this year and winter brings an even more increased risk to flocks as migratory birds return to the United Kingdom.
“Scrupulous biosecurity and hygiene measures are the best forms of defence, which is why we have declared an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone across Great Britain, meaning that all bird keepers must take action to help prevent the disease spreading to more poultry and other domestic birds.
“The introduction of an AIPZ means regardless of whether you keep a few birds or thousands, you are legally required to meet enhanced biosecurity requirements to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”
Last month, when The Independent reported the scale of the culls at poultry farms around the country, the government said the numbers represented a small proportion of overall poultry production, which stands at around 20 million birds slaughtered a week.
The government said the introduction of an AIPZ followed a decision to raise the risk level for avian influenza incursion in wild birds in Great Britain from “medium” to “high”.
“For poultry and captive birds the risk level has been raised from ‘medium’ to ‘high’ at premises where biosecurity is below the required standards, and from ‘low’ to ‘medium’ where stringent biosecurity measures are applied,” Defra said.
The UK Health Security Agency said the risk to public health from the virus was “very low”, and the Food Standards Agency advises that avian influenzas pose a very low food safety risk for consumers. Properly cooked poultry and poultry products, including eggs, are safe to eat, it said.
The government also said due to the continuing risk posed by the disease “a mandatory housing requirement in the AIPZ may arise” in future.
The AIPZ means bird keepers across Great Britain must:
- Keep free-ranging birds within fenced areas, and ponds, watercourses and permanent standing water must be fenced off (except in specific circumstances eg zoo birds)
- Clean and disinfect footwear and keep areas where birds live clean and tidy
- Minimise movement in and out of bird enclosures
- Reduce any existing contamination by cleansing and disinfecting concrete areas, and fencing off wet or boggy areas
- Keep domestic ducks and geese separate from other poultry
- Ensure the areas where birds are kept are unattractive to wild birds, for example by netting ponds, and by removing wild bird food sources
- Feed and water your birds in enclosed areas to discourage wild birds.